http://blog.richardleeharris.net/wp-login.php http://meaningfuldesigns.info/category/recycled-materials/ The gravity of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s forced resignation (which was later retracted) is often understated; it is underscored by a forgotten and misunderstood internal political dynamic that is among the oldest and most complex in the Middle East. Central to this ongoing domestic crisis is the Islamic group operating in Yemen—the Houthis—that retains control of the capital, Sana’a, and the parliament. While the Shia minorities’ intentions remain ambiguous and, at times, contradictory, the Houthis claim to represent something that all Yemenis yearn for: “government accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis, and the end of Western influence.” In what has been a four month-long stalemate in the struggle for political control, Yemen has become a breeding ground for proxy wars—specifically between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
While Saudi Arabia has generally taken a back seat in the Middle Eastern geopolitical struggle, King Salman uncharacteristically organized a coalition of ten Sunni states to systematically bomb Houthi territories. The Kingdom has famously held a non-aligned, non-interference policy, and it is perhaps the biggest regional power that has pragmatically refrained from intervening in the Israel-Palestine crisis. This crisis, though, has united regional political rivals—like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—to confront a perceived Iranian proxy in the dilapidated and increasingly fragile Yemeni political state. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites in Islam—Mecca and Medina—is the de facto leader of the Sunni world, and the perceived encroachment upon its territory by (Shia) Iran reveals a decades-long hostility that has defined relations between the two countries.
The strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Yemen are rooted on two lines: sectarian and ideological; Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Sunni world, and Iran as the leader of the Shia world. While there has been a thaw in their cold relations, long term rapprochement is unlikely in light of the course of events in Yemen. And so the game goes on. It is indeed a game, because both Middle Eastern powers look to Yemen as a pawn on their chessboard. For Saudi Arabia, the implications for national security are paramount. The Saudi-Yemeni border in the south of the country is the primary point of infiltration for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); political instability in either countries will only allow the terrorist group to establish a solid foothold in the region and have relatively free movement northwards into Saudi Arabia. For Iran, Yemen is a realization of Ali Khamenei’s proxy war to impose and expand a Shia Muslim influence in the region. It has already succeeded in various other countries. In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Hezbollah; in Syria, the allied Assad regime.
The events leading up to and surrounding Yemen are reminiscent of the Great Game that played out between Afghanistan, Great Britain, and Russia last century. What Britain feared then—“that one of the other European powers would take advantage of the political decay in Islamic Asia”—is precisely the power struggle that concerns both Iran and Saudi Arabia today. For the latter, the threat extends along both literal and figurative boundaries and borders: the stability, or lack of stability, in Yemen could upend the Kingdom’s claim to stable leadership amidst terrorist threats, and it will also validate (or threaten) the country’s traditional influence in the Middle East. The ‘New Great Game’, much like the original, is not proxy war for the sake of diplomatic upstage. Rather, there are very real ramifications to the Yemeni conflict; as the Russo-British rivalry captured “the danger that Russian expansion would overthrow the balance of power and result in czarist domination of Eurasia,” growing Iranian influence today suggests to Saudi Arabia that established geopolitical roles are being uprooted in favor of a radical, guerrilla warfare, and military coup-inspired power recalibration. In other words, that Tehran’s strength is not as concentrated within its own borders as some may have imagined.
The implications of Yemen are clear—it is the proverbial line in the sand for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The imminent threat, though, is of greater concern to the latter for the simple reason that Al Qaeda’s growing presence in the region is concentrated on the Yemeni-Saudi border. As expected, the country has “bombed airfields, bomb dumps and missile launchers” in the hands of Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s supporters. It has largely been ineffective—Houthi forces continue to expand within Yemen while maintaining a stronghold in Sana’a—and it only further undermines the invisible containment (against both AQAP and Iran) that Saudi Arabia is desperately trying to enforce. For Iran, Yemen’s return to stability would not be a great loss; the country is only an added bargaining chip that supplements its already solid buffer zones in Iraq and Syria—both of which separate the Shia capital from the Sunni Middle East. As Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Institution notes, “in the regional cold war, this [Yemeni conflict] has strengthened the position of the Iranians.” With that in mind, if Saudi Arabia wants to ensure the sanctity of its borders, perhaps the only alternative left is diplomatic negotiations that lead to bilateral political agreements—with Rouhani in Iran and with the Houthis in Yemen.
Illustration – Daniela Dos Santos